President's Blog

Archive for November 2012

Thanksgiving Reading

As students have returned to campus after Thanksgiving break I’ve been asking them how the holiday was. Their answers are quite consistent: the holiday was wonderful, they had a terrific time, and they were ready to come back to campus and plunge into the last couple of weeks of the semester.  With the end of the semester looming, I’ve heard about art projects that need to be completed in time to dry, thick books that remain to be read, performances that could use more rehearsal, and lab results that haven’t quite gelled.

I was thinking with amusement that for many students, immersed in reading all semester, Thanksgiving can be a welcome if short break from reading while for me it is a welcome if short opportunity to read. My recommendation coming out of this holiday weekend: Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard. It’s the story of the assassination of James Garfield, and an utterly gripping tale it is.

Until more than a year ago, when Endstation Theater Company performed Steven Sondheim’s Assassins on campus, I had never given a minute’s thought to James Garfield or his assassination. I suppose it might have been seeing that play that encouraged me to pick up the book. It’s the sort of book that led to my pestering Rick regularly with “did you know?” questions — Did you know that Garfield became a college president at the age of 26? And studied for and passed the bar while serving as a college president? Did you know that in 1881 if a U.S. President wanted to travel he walked into a train station and bought a ticket just like anybody else?

But none of that, fascinating though it was, was the really interesting part of the story. What most intrigued me was the clarity with which Millard lays out the relationship between Garfield’s death and the history of modern medicine. The assassination took place at a very particular moment. Lister and others had pioneered modern infection control, and some forward-thinking doctors were changing their ways, but medical eminences such as were allowed to treat a wounded President were loyal to longstanding and “conventional” practice. Garfield didn’t die from being shot but from medically induced infection. 15 or 20 years later a wound such as his would have been routinely treatable and he would have survived. To me, the story Millard tells is one about knowledge, technology, and innovation — and the world-shaping implications of their interrelation.

(Did you know that Alexander Graham Bell created the first prototype of a metal detector in an attempt to help doctors locate the bullet lodged in Garfield’s body?)



Giving Thanks!

This afternoon the campus is emptying out for the holiday. Since late last week, conversations have tended to focus on the confluence of food and memory, on the things we make because our mothers and grandmothers always did or the things we’re planning to make because our mothers and grandmothers never would! Rick and I are planning two Thanksgiving dinners — one “American” (turkey, cornbread/sausage stuffing, green bean casserole) and one “Lebanese” (roast lamb, coucous, loobiyah) to give due honor to all of our grandmothers.

Each year as Thanksgiving rolls around I’m overwhelmed with gratitude for all things Sweet Briar. For the faculty, that wonderful group of imaginative and dedicated scholars; for the students, whose energy and curiosity make every day an adventure; for the staff, who support the work of the faculty and students, generally from behind the scenes; for the alumnae whose remarkable achievements illustrate why Sweet Briar matters.

Today, I am thinking with particular gratitude of our donors. These are some of the things Sweet Briar has today that it didn’t have a year ago, because of generous and wise gifts received since last Thanksgiving:

  • The Barton Laing Chair in Art History, given to honor two revered former faculty members — Eleanor Barton and Ninie Laing.
  • Seven updated classrooms, given to honor classmates, mothers, daughters, sisters, friends, or teachers.
  • The endowed Fund for Faculty Excellence and Innovation, which will support and honor faculty leaders who are developing more effective ways to engage today’s students.
  • A renovated music room, given by a group of former students to honor Professor Rebecca McCord.
  • A Senior Class gift so enthusiastically supported that the dollar goal was met on kick-off night! (They’re still working on their participation goal, and I’m quite confident they’ll get there well before graduation.)


Other gifts have established or enhanced scholarships, swelled the Annual Fund, and supported internships. Yet others have provided equipment to the theater shop, books to the library, uniforms to athletics teams, or fencing for the Riding Center. Every single one of those gifts made a difference and every single one is in use today.

Each fall I invite new students over for Pizza with Parker, and each fall I ask them to fill out comment cards to let me know how things are going in their first weeks on campus. This fall, I received one pink index card that made my heart soar: it said, simply, “THANK YOU FOR THIS COLLEGE.” To everyone who has made a gift to Sweet Briar this year, of any size or nature, I am honored to say with her, on behalf of all our students, “thank you for this college.’

Happy Thanksgiving!

Why I Love Board Meetings (no, really, I do!)

Last weekend Sweet Briar’s Board of Directors was on campus for its fall meeting.

The Board meeting itself begins on Thursday evening and ends at lunchtime on Saturday. A day and half is a pretty long meeting, you might think: and of course, preparations start weeks before. And each meeting generates important additional work for the weeks after.

Yes, Board meetings are work, but they’re the best kind of work. Reviewing the information and reports prepared for the Board reminds us all of the vital and exciting things that happen on campus every day. For example, this time we shared a new Faculty Achievements publication — it will be on line shortly, in case you’d like to see it — summarizing all the publications, lectures, exhibits, performances, reviews, grants and honors Sweet Briar faculty have accomplished recently. Other materials reported increasingly strong numbers of applications, increasing numbers of donors, and continued success with finding way to reduce operating costs without affecting student experience.

Showing Directors the construction work underway on the library project and the new classrooms installed last summer renewed our pride in the very successful “learning spaces” initiative. And celebrating the completed funding of eight more new classrooms to be installed in the coming year gave us even more to look forward to.

Board meetings create an opportunity for dialogue between faculty and Board leadership groups; this time, for example, conversation focused on the arts at Sweet Briar and the importance of our partnership with the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Keeping with the arts theme, students performers did numbers from our recent production of The King and I over lunch on Friday; many Directors also attended the fall dance concert that evening.

And then, after each Board meeting there are the community updates. (You can find the written update report here.) My office buys lunch for anybody who wants to come and hear a summary of the topics on the Board’s agenda and any decisions they made. This is an opportunity for me to hear comments and questions from faculty members, students, librarians, office managers, athletic trainers, housekeepers, physical plant staff, admissions recruiters — in short, from anybody on campus who would like to talk with the President about the College’s plans and priorities.

Perhaps the best thing about those updates, though, is that I get to reflect back to the campus community the appreciation and respect with which their work is regarded by the members of the Board. Finally, that’s probably the best thing about Board meetings and community updates — how much we enjoy sharing our love for Sweet Briar!

All Saints, Halloween, Dia de los Muertos

It’s that time of year; autumn colors have faded, the ground is covered in crispy brown leaves, the community garden has been put to rights for the winter, the chill in the air has a cutting edge, there’s more gray than blue in the skies. It’s November on campus. Mid-terms have passed but there’s still a way to go until finals. The novelty of the semester has worn off and yet the end is not quite yet in sight. Thanksgiving break can’t get here soon enough.

This season has its own celebrations, marking the pivot of the year toward the dark, the cold, dormancy.

Last night, Chung Mungs took faculty and staff children trick-or-treating through the dorms and — of course! — Sweet Briar House. Rick and I are delighted to see the various ghouls, film characters, animals, and superheroes walk up through the Boxwood Circle to the front door.  Last night, I was particularly enchanted by a small lobster-in-arms. 

Trick-or-treating is the least of it. Today and tomorrow, the Sweet Briar Museum is offering a tour and program of ghost stories. “The program includes fictional and non-fictional accounts, such as “The Shadow Child,” which appeared in the very first Sweet Briar Magazine in 1909, “A Mid Summer Night’s Vision of Daisy’s Garden” from 1915, and a news story from 1928 titled “Novel Ghost Flits Far Ahead.”” And last Saturday there was a 5K “Zombie Run” on campus. This event was created by business students as a fundraiser for the Jennifer Hunter Yates Sarcoma Foundation. If you don’t know about zombie runs, they’re pretty much like any other 5K — just with zombies chasing you.

Photo from NPR on facebook

Some of our celebrations are thoughtful opportunities to reflect on the relationships and ties that connect the living and the dead. New Chaplain and Director of Student Spiritual Life Dori Baker held an all saint’s commemoration this week: participants were invited to bring memories of the saints (whether canonized or not) who have touched their own lives most deeply.

And later this afternoon the Cochran Library is sponsoring the 2nd annual Dia de los Muertos celebration. They’re collaborating with the student group Hermanas Unidas on this; there will be homemade Mexican food, face painting, and candy skulls to decorate. There will also be an altar on which participants will display photos of friends and family members who have passed away. (There’s an interesting explanation of the meaning of the altar pictured at left on NPR.)

As the darker and colder season closes in, the campus finds creative, fun, and meaningful ways to make sure Sweet Briar generates light and warmth.